PRINCETON - Before taking off in the terrain park at Wachusett Mountain, the two snowboarders inside the slopeside tent watched the video. Maybe three times an hour Dave Truedson, the park's manager, plays the 12-minute safety message for first-time visitors. When it's over, they sign a waiver, pay a small pass fee, and are cleared for flight.
"This is just a way to educate the kids and adults so they can pick something they can handle," said Truedson.
From origins in urban skateboard culture, terrain parks were pioneered by snowboarders and now are a common playground for skiers, riders, and families. They can be as benign as a dip on the side of a groomed trail or as daunting as a gnarly steep double black diamond run. That's the beauty. Parks have grown so that many ski areas have several, each designed for a certain level of ability. Some have their own lifts.
The parks are loaded with boxes, rails, and jumps. Called features, the various shapes and sizes determine the degree of difficulty. There also are other items to navigate, which can include stairs, walls, wooden hitching posts, barrels, and even movable rooftop rails. Some have long halfpipes with thick, high walls.
Parks are constantly changing, based on the designer's whim and user input. While groomers lay down those blissful tracks of corduroy on the slopes, they're also sculpting those features with the help of a crew that does some shoveling.
"Most important is to provide features for people to learn on," said Jay Scambio, the terrain park development manager for New Hampshire's Loon Mountain and Maine's Sunday River and Sugarloaf. "You can go and ride the really small stuff, gain confidence, and then go to the next level."
The parks are overseen by park rangers who serve as enforcers and educators. Just as ski trails have a safety responsibility code, so do parks. Called Smart Style, the program is big on safety and etiquette, urging users to have a plan, look before leaping, respect one another, and know their ability.
"To go into a terrain park and use the features requires skill at turning, speed control, balance, and dealing with uneven terrain," said Dave Paulger of Bartlett, N.H., a longtime snowboard coach at Attitash. "Know your limitations."
New England is home to a variety of parks for all ages.
1. Snowboard Nation descends on Stratton Mountain every March to watch the world's best snowboarders at the US Open. On the sport's cutting edge, the southern Vermont area unveiled its flagship Burton Kids Parkway in December. A kids-only zone, parents stay outside the fences as the 4-to-12-year-old set is taught safety, etiquette, and technique. The teaching park is loaded with bright graphic signs and even a traffic light so kids know when it's OK to go. To get there take the 560-foot enclosed Magic Carpet lift outside the base lodge.
Stratton Mountain, Vt., 800-STRATTON, stratton.com.
2. Be the family champion at Okemo's Tomahawk Family Cross Park. Think motocross as the clan races head-to-head over huge mounds of snow with banked turns and rolling terrain. Opened in January, the park on the Lower Tomahawk trail showcases the new school sports of snowboardcross and skiercross. Vermont snowboarding Olympian Ross Powers trains here in his bid for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. One of six terrain parks and superpipe at Okemo Mountain in central Vermont (Okemo's sister New Hampshire resort Mount Sunapee has something similar), Tomahawk is a match for intermediate skiers and snowboarders.
77 Okemo Ridge Road, Ludlow, Vt., 800-78-OKEMO, okemo.com.
3. Not everyone belongs in a terrain park or halfpipe. That's why some parks require a pass received after satisfying certain safety requirements. The Look Mom park at Wachusett Mountain is one. Anyone can try the smaller elements on the Hitchcock Trail, but those wanting to ride the intermediate rails must have a pass. Everyone must first watch a safety education video near the park's entrance, sign a form saying you've seen it, and pay a $5 seasonal fee.
499 Mountain Road, Princeton, 978-464-2300, wachusett.com.
4. Park users have a 370-foot conveyor-type lift at Jiminy Peak's Alex's Park in Hancock. The Carpet lift also serves as a check-in where an attendant ensures each skier or rider dropping in for the large rails and boxes has a Smart Card that proves they've seen the required safety video and paid the $3 seasonal tariff. The park is one of three at the Berkshire ski area. Beginners have the small park on the 180 Trail. Coyote Ridge and Alex's Park are both on Grand Slam, with Coyote Ridge on the upper slope featuring jumps. Christiansen's Tavern offers a fine slopeside vantage point on the Alex's Park activities.
37 Corey Road, Hancock, 800-882-8859, jiminypeak.com.
5. Though it's no landing strip, the ATP Fly Zone at Attitash is hard to miss. Front and center on the Thad's Choice Trail, the intermediate-and-above terrain park is a magnet for the freestyle set looking to get started in snow flight with unsanctioned competitions like the ATP Freeride Series. One of two parks at the resort, the Zone routinely fills with competitors largely under the age of 21 and is a training ground for the mountain's youthful freestyle team. Get a closer look by riding the East Double Double chair before dropping in. There's a pipe too. Videos shot in the zone are screened in the base lodge hangout, the Hangar.
Route 302, Bartlett, N.H., 800-223-SNOW, attitash.com.
6. Go from baby steps to big air at Loon Mountain. The five parks range from a learning park, the Burton Progression Park, which is offered at several areas and features signage and low-level elements, to its signature advanced Loon Mountain Park loaded with lines of jumps, rails, and even a drive-in screen-size wooden wall ride. The idea is to team riders and skiers with elements that they're ready to slide. Better riders can head to a few small to medium-sized parks to warm up before hucking themselves down the superpipe (large halfpipe) or down street-style stairs at Loon Mountain Park.
60 Loon Mountain Road, Lincoln, N.H., 800-229-LOON, loonmtn.com.
7. They come at night to see and be seen. Middle- and high-schoolers congregate outside Shawnee's base lodge under the lights in the Freestyle Terrain Park taking turns hitting the Wall Ride, gaining amplitude over the halfpipe's walls, or jibbing the rails. The shadows make them seem taller than they are. The lights also shine on Grommet Garden, the small terrain park. Parents are nearby on the Blizzard's Pub deck, keeping eyes out for the kids while consuming adult beverages.
Shawnee Peak, 119 Mountain Road, Bridgton, Maine, 207-647-8444, shawneepeak.com.
Marty Basch, a New Hampshire- based freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.